Ariana. The nurse. Selysette, Mélisande, Ygraine, the five wives. Bellangère, Alladine (pantomime role), Blue Beard. An old peasant. Second peasant. Third peasant. The crowd.
The first act shows how Ariana, the sixth wife, opened the forbidden door. A sumptuous apartment in Blue Beard’s castle is disclosed. It is in the form of a semicircle. At the rear there is a great door and on each side of this are three smaller doors of ebony with locks and ornamentations of silver. Above the six smaller doors are six tall windows, which are open. It is evening and the chandeliers are lighted. Through the windows come the cries of an excited and indignant crowd below. From their disjointed utterances, it may be gathered that a beautiful, smiling young woman has just been conveyed in a coach to Blue Beard’s castle. They say that she should be warned before the fatal doors close upon her forever. There have been five before her. That is too many! Some say that she knows all and that she is coming into the trap with her eyes open. But she is too lovely to die, so lovely that twenty lovers have followed her from her city and are weeping in the streets.
As the crowd discourses, the windows close quite of themselves and Ariana, the sixth wife, and her nurse enter the apartment. The nurse is full of fears about this new husband of whom such terrible things are rumored. Ariana assures her that she does not believe the wives are dead. At any rate she is going to know the secret. Her husband has given her the keys which open the bridal treasure. The six silver keys are to use, the golden key is forbidden. But that is the only one which counts with Ariana and she throws the others disdainfully upon the marble floor. The nurse hastily gathers them up and with the permission of her mistress unlocks one of the doors. It swings upon its hinges and a perfect shower of amethyst jewelry rains upon her. There are collars, aigrettes, bracelets, rings, buckles, girdles, diadems. Distracted, she plunges her arms deep into the purple treasure and fills her mantle to overflowing.
” They are beautiful,” agrees Ariana. “Open the second door.”
Breathless the nurse turns the key; the doors swing apart; and a dazzling eruption of sapphires falls about them. The third door is opened to release a milky rivulet of pearls ; the fourth to emit a deluge of emeralds ; from the fifth comes a tragic cascade of rubies, like a bloody warning; from the opened sixth flows a marvelous, bewildering cataract of diamonds. Only for a moment does the young wife gaze at the splendor. Now for the seventh forbidden door with the hinges and locks of gold! Disregarding the protests of the nurse she turns the key and throws open the door. Nothing but a dark opening is seen but from it issues, weirdly, the song of the five daughters of Orlamonde who have wandered through three hundred halls searching for the light. They see the great ocean through the window and fear to die ; they knock upon the closed door but do not dare to open it.
Blue Beard comes quietly into the room and regards Ariana. ” You, too,” he observes, dryly. ” I especially,” says Ariana. ” How long have they been there?” she asks.
” Some many days, some many months, the last a year. It was a very little thing that I asked.”
” You asked more than you gave,” returns Ariana.
” But you lose the happiness I wished for you,” says Blue Beard looking sadly at his wife. ” Only give up knowing and I shall yet pardon you.”
But Ariana has no such idea. Blue Beard seizes her by the arm and involuntarily she utters a cry. The listening crowd below hear it ; a stone crashes through the window. In a moment, the angry people rush into the house but Ariana advances calmly toward them.
” What would you? ” she inquires. ” He has done me no ill.” And they go away shamefaced.
In Act II we see Ariana and her nurse descending the last steps of a subterranean stairway and plunging into almost complete obscurity. Five forms are crouched in a grotto, so motionless that she fears them dead. At the sound of her voice, they tremble. She runs to them to cover their faces with kisses, to caress them and to utter little cries of joy that their lips are fresh and their arms warm and living. She fancies they still are beautiful, but when the nurse brings the light they appear a desolate group, pale and emaciated, their hair disheveled, their clothing in rags. She hovers about them then with tender expressions of pity. They gaze at her beauty and inquire sadly whether she too has disobeyed.
” I have obeyed, but other laws than his,” returns Ariana sententiously.
She asks them more of the experiences of their entombment. They tell her of their occupations, which are to pray, to sing, to weep and always to watch. Then Ariana scolds them gently for their passivity. Do they not know that outside is the springtide, the sunlight, the dew on the leaves, the smiling sea ?
As she speaks, a jet of water falling from the roof of the vault extinguishes the lamp. Only for a moment is she disconcerted. Then she sees a faint light at the end of the vault and promises to lead them to it. With their aid, she climbs the high rocks which interpose. Groping along the wall she comes to a section bolted and barred. She would try her strength upon it but the others cry out in warning.
” My poor sisters,” reproaches Ariana. ” Why do you wish me to deliver you if you so adore your darkness? ”
At last her struggles are successful and the prison is opened to the dazzling light of noon. Blinded, the five wives hide their unaccustomed eyes. When they can bear it, they look out and exclaim in delight at the trees, the green country, the distant village. Breathless they watch the figure of a peasant and count the strokes of the clock. Ariana tells them not to gaze at the light until they grow apprehensive but to profit by their temporary frenzy to get out of their tomb.
” Here is a stairway,” she calls. “I do not know where it leads, but it is light. Come everybody.” Half reluctantly they lift themselves up by the rocks and then disappear outside, dancing and singing in the light.
In Act III, we are taken again to Blue Beard’s enchanted castle, where before the mirrors the five wives are decking themselves with jewels and flowers. Ariana runs from one to the other to assist in making them fine. They whisper questions about Blue Beard.
” You are going to be free and you must be beautiful,” remarks Ariana. She counsels each to make the most of her special gift. She unbinds Mélisande’s lovely hair; she loops back Ygraine’s sleeves to show her charming arms. They have made nothing of themselves. It is not strange he did not love them for he had only their shadows.
The nurse rushes into the room, haggard and frightened, with the news that Blue Beard is coming under guard and that all the villagers have assembled to capture him. The wives hastily mount the stairway and gaze from the high windows. With hungry eyes they watch the ogre issue from his coach. They nearly faint with terror when the peasants attack him and rout him and the guards. When he falls wounded and the peasants bind him they cry out entreaties not to kill him. The mob invades the castle, and lays at the feet of the stately Ariana the bound and helpless Blue Beard.
” Here he is, madam,” they say, proudly. ” He shall do you no more harm.” They proffer further aid but Ariana tells them it is not needed, and so they disperse. On their knees, the five wives gaze at their fallen lord. Ariana gently examines Blue Beard’s wounds and the wives rise and vie with each other to do him service. Alladine, the wife who cannot speak their language, furtively kisses him.
When he has been cared for, Ariana cuts the cords which bind him and prepares to go. Blue Beard feeling himself free, raises himself and looks attentively at each of the five wives. Then, perceiving Ariana, he turns toward her. She gives him her hand in farewell and he tries to retain it but she releases herself gently and goes toward the door with her nurse. She asks them all in turn to go with her. The moon and the stars shine all along the road ; the sea and the forest call; the dawn peers over the azure vault and shows the world inundated with hope. Are they coming?
But even Alladine, who sobs for a moment in her arms, cannot say yes.
“Adieu ; be happy,” says pitying Ariana through her tears, as she goes away. The women look intently at Blue Beard, who raises his head as the curtain goes down.
Herein we see the invasion of the opera by the problem. Woman’s craving for emancipation and her reluctance to accept it when it comes to her are impressively set forth in this Maeterlinck fable. The music by Dukas, one of the younger of the French composers, is in the most advanced modern manner and has attracted to its author widespread attention, and won for him both enthusiastic approval and unqualified censure. The radicals hail him as a genius; the conservatives regard him as an extremist of almost dangerous type.